My husband and I enjoy taking personality tests for fun, partly because it can be a useful tool to help you understand your spouse better, but mostly because we think the results are hilarious. In every test we take we end up on opposite ends of the spectrum! The most entertaining ones are the tests which say: ‘if you are x personality, don’t marry y personality’. That’s us, x and y, happily married despite our apparently incompatible personalities! We were pondering this seeming oxymoron and wondered how we ended up having a good marriage when most psychiatrists would tell us that, humanly speaking, we are not compatible. And it occurred to us that although we may be very different personalities, when it comes to character we value the same things. We both appreciate honesty, forthrightness, responsibility, trustworthiness, reliability, perseverance, creativity, etc … Given that we were both raised in Reformed churches by parents of Dutch descent, in families similar in belief and values, it is not surprising that we have similar characters. Character, unlike temperament or personality, is not something we are born with but grows over time based on our upbringing and beliefs. Godly character is the result of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
If character is grown over time, based on our beliefs and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, then it follows that character is malleable. It is able to be formed from a young age, and continues to be formed throughout our lives, based on our circumstances and our reactions to them. The book of Proverbs in the Bible probably has more to say on the formation of character than any other book. Solomon’s wisdom for building character is the main thrust of the entire book of Proverbs. These sayings of his and others focus the attention on the individual and are therefore applicable to all people at any point in history. They are not bound by cultural understanding or situation, or age or gender, but have value for everyone. Proverbs is immensely practical, however it is not secular – ‘the fear of the Lord’ is the starting point for all that Solomon has to say. The purpose of the book of Proverbs is to encourage the growth of godly character, through knowledge and fear of the Lord, in the outworking of faith and obedience to God. Proverbs encourages us to find both moral skilfulness and mental discernment (Prov 1:2-6). Both of these are necessary in the development of godly character. Let’s have a look at some of the character traits the book of Proverbs focuses on and how we might use these in our own lives to build up both ourselves and those around us.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most commonly mentioned traits in the book of Proverbs is that of pride. The temptation is common to all of us, is at the root of all sin from Adam to the present day, and causes the downfall of many. Solomon has plenty to say about it. One of the most well known verses about pride, quoted widely even amongst non-Christians is, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18). This is a good verse to memorise for whenever we may begin to feel a little puffed up! But training ourselves to avoid pride begins early. Solomon advises children to listen to their fathers’ and mothers’ instructions in order to benefit themselves long-term: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck.” (1:8-9) Proverbs is an invaluable resource for teaching our children the way in which they ought to live. In training ourselves and our children we can point to Solomon’s advice and pull examples from the present day to back it up. I’m sure many of us can think of a multitude of examples of those whose pride in themselves or their accomplishments has led to their downfall. “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” (11:2)
Part of what I love about Proverbs are the frequent contrasts; as we are trying to avoid one thing, we can intentionally focus on building the opposite. Instead of pride, humility! “One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honour.” (29:23) Lowliness of spirit and humility are not character traits encouraged in the world around us. We are constantly being told to blow our own trumpets, pat ourselves on the back, announce our value to all and sundry, and sing our own praises. You just need to read a modern CV to get a feeling for this kind of talk! What Proverbs has to say to us about humility is counter-cultural.
Another popular topic in the book of Proverbs is that of self-control. Again, this is a counter-cultural notion. Nike says, ‘just do it’! MasterCard says, ‘There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard’. When seizing the moment, obeying your impulses, and purchasing everything on credit card are the messages of the world, we need to work extra hard to build a character of self-control. I love the similes used in some of these proverbs: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (25:28). Explaining this one to the kids meant a lesson in historical battle tactics and siege warfare, complete with illustrations! The gist of it, however, is that when we lack self-control we leave ourselves wide open to temptation. Satan can fire his arrows, sling his stones and throw his spears and we have no walls up to block them. Self-control is a character trait that is absolutely vital to withstand the attacks of the devil. It is also essential in avoiding strife: “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (29:11). How many of those currently in jail would not be there if they had held back their anger in a crucial moment? We must learn and encourage self-control in ourselves and those around us so that we may act in an appropriate and godly manner in the most difficult of situations.
Some of the most striking and protracted similes in the book of Proverbs are to do with the sluggard and the perils of laziness. The phrases that Solomon uses stick in the mind and can be easily recalled to assist in the fight against slothfulness. “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.” (6:6) “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber and want like an armed man.” (6:10-11) The Bible has a lot to say about the value of work and this is a great place to begin for those who might be struggling. The principle of working in order to live has been around for a very long time! We can use a passage like this to encourage ourselves when we are feeling less than diligent, or to encourage those around us to carry on the good work they are doing. We may use it also to challenge those who are waiting for others to provide for them instead of being industrious. “The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the street!’ As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth.” (26:13-15) It is a worthwhile exercise to look at these rather humorous examples and apply them to our children/teenagers. Don’t be like the door hinges, turning in your bed! Don’t make up pitiful excuses to miss work, school, cadets, youth group, or Sunday worship. Avoid eating to excess and gluttony, binge drinking until you can’t even lift your glass anymore. When my children are tempted to laziness or come up with poor excuses I sometimes quote to them: “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!” (22:13) Then we can have a laugh about how silly they’re being and carry on diligently.
Proverbs talks also about contentment: “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot” (14:30), and it speaks about truthfulness: “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight.” (12:22) We could continue on and find verses about patience, peace, generosity, faithfulness, kindness and compassion, but space is limited!
I urge you to go to the book of Proverbs and find some key verses to assist with character development in areas you or those you love are struggling with. Print them out, colour them in, put them on your walls or use them as bookmarks. Memorise them, talk about them, encourage others with them. Proverbs is practical wisdom for your sanctification. Use it for your personal growth in grace and wisdom!
Mrs Joanna Voschezang is a member in the Hamilton Reformed Church.